Monday, June 30, 2014

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION is the most brilliant and subversively political film you'll see all year

Transformers: Age of Extinction might be the most cinematically daring film of this decade, if not this century.  It's a genuinely rare pleasure to be cognizant of film history being made as you watch celluloid (figuratively) unspool before you, but Michael Bay has never been a conventional fillmmaker. With T:AOE, this Picasso of Pyro has produced a potent film as subversive and singular as anything one might find from John Waters or Michael Haneke.

“It would be nice to not have to do effects and big car crashes. I’m waiting for the great written word.”

This is a quote from Michael Bay, fifteen years ago.  By then, he was already famous for Bad Boys, The Rock, numerous music videos and was on the cusp of Armageddon's release. Many dismissed him as a surface-level filmmaker, an ironic attack as that charge could only be deemed plausible if those who subscribed to it limited their gaze to the flashy exterior that coats Bay's films like glaze on a donut, or baby oil on a desirable woman.

Much like The Beatles, whose pop exterior were merely the delivery method through which more complex and profound ideas were smuggled, Bay was always planting deeper themes for those willing to look for them.  Anyone who appreciated his masterful reworking of the Beauty & The Beast tale in music video form could understand that, when a singularly-beautiful creature wins the love of desire incarnate... at the price of trading in their unique appearance for the grotesque visage of Meat Loaf.

Alas, Bay's work more often was appreciated (and derided) for its facile charms by those not in on the joke.  Accordingly, Bay exaggerated their scale with each subsequent film, in the futile hope that taking the material increasingly over-the-top would expose it as satire and criticism of the values so many erroneously assume those works endorse.  And still the call went unheeded.  It's impossible to think of any peer in his field who has been so aggressively deconstructive of his own work within the films he has helmed.

It was during this film that clarity finally dawned on me -  Michael Bay is Daniel Clamp, the billionaire developer played with aplomb by John Glover in Gremlins 2: The New Batch. In that film, Clamp was responsible not only for a pending modernized redevelopment of Chinatown, but a fully automated building that was more often a source of consternation for those using it.  It also proved to be the perfect romping ground for the Gremlins to destroy.  Having survived that chaos, at the end of the film, Clamp looks at his achievement with new eyes, saying, "Maybe it wasn't a place for people anyway. It was a place for things. You make a place for things... things come."

At some point, Michael Bay looked at the summer movies that arrived in the wake of his films, and realized he had turned summer into a place for things.  Armageddon and Pearl Harbor are the sound and fury that made films like G.I. Joe, Battleship and White House Down possible. With Age of Extinction, Bay has finally reached the point where he's stopped being subtle about trying to implode the automated building he forged.

The most meta line of dialogue this summer is uttered by Kelsey Grammer's character, the true hero of the film as he states, "A new era has begun. The age of Transformers is over..."

Taken together, the Transformers Tetralogy are the most intensely self-aware criticism of the MTV-style, explosion-happy, titilation-soaked style of filmmaking.  For the last several Transformers films, Bay sought to make this motivation more obvious by recruiting Ehren Kruger for screenplay duties. One of the leading voices in film, Kruger is clearly of a like mind when it comes to making audiences confront the superficial nature of the works they submit their intelligence to.

Artists and critics often talk about "emotional truth" versus "logical truth."  This is the justification by which a film doesn't have to make logical sense - or even adhere to its own stated logic - so long as it feels right.  Does it makes sense, or is it even historically accurate, when President Roosevelt defies the odds to rise out of his wheelchair in Pearl Harbor? Absolutely not.  But it provokes that sort of "never give up spirit" that is essential to the film.  The genius of Kruger is that he carries this further.

Consider the ending of Arlington Road, where Jeff Bridges is played for a fool by terrorists who manipulate circumstances with god-like precision.  No less than the great Roger Ebert once misread this film:

"'Arlington Road' is a conspiracy thriller that begins well and makes good points, but it flies off the rails in the last 30 minutes. The climax is so implausible we stop caring and start scratching our heads. Later, thinking back through the film, we realize it's not just the ending that's cuckoo. Given the logic of the ending, the entire film has to be rethought; this is one of those movies where the characters only seem to be living their own lives, when in fact they're strapped to the wheels of a labyrinthine hidden plot... 

"But leave the plot details aside for a second. What about the major physical details of the final thriller scenes? How can anyone, even skilled conspirators, predict with perfect accuracy the outcome of a car crash? How can they know in advance that a man will go to a certain pay phone at a certain time, so that he can see a particular truck he needs to see? How can the actions of security guards be accurately anticipated? Isn't it risky to hinge an entire plan of action on the hope that the police won't stop a car speeding recklessly through a downtown area? It's here that the movie completely breaks down." 

With respect to Mr. Ebert, this is the entire point.  Kruger wasn't attempting to write a brilliant thriller, he was writing a brilliant criticism of brainless thrillers and attempting to provoke the audience into recognizing the smoke and mirrors behind them.  For a film to tell you that it's climactic twist was ironic or impressive should not be enough. "It doesn't make sense!" the film screams. "And you lemmings lap it up every time!"  When that moral failed to land, Kruger repeated the trick with The Ring - a film that ends with a moment that feels shocking and dangerous ("You didn't let her out, did you?") before reminding us that freeing Samara doesn't make things worse. She still only can kill those who have watched her cursed tape.

Thus, it's impossible not to interpret AGE OF EXTINCTION as two brilliant deconstructionists jam-banding on an action movie specifically designed to burn the house down.  This is Kruger and Bay as Bialystock and Bloom, dropping "Springtime for Hitler" on an unsuspecting crowd like it's an atom bomb.  And appropriately, the soundtrack of the damned can only be provided by Imagine Dragons.

With the fourth Transformers, Michael Bay finally accomplishes what the three previous films tried so hard to do - turn the Transformers into bad guys, the enemies of all mankind.  The first film is idealistic and Spielberg-like for the first hour.  It's the story of a teenage boy advancing into manhood by pursuing the desirable girl.  It's a story as old as time and one gets the sense that were there no killer robots, Sam might win Mikaela's heart easily.  But then the killer robots smash into Sam's narrative and from then on, the simple joys of independence from one's parents and pleasures of the flesh are cast aside.

Mayhem reigns and eventually casts a swath of destruction through Sam's life across two sequels.  It's no accident that the romance Sam sought in the first film is destroyed by the third one.  We should not want these Transformers, Bay is telling us.  We should not want these films.  This lead to his most audiacious move in the third film, replacing Megan Fox with a lingerie model.  Bay must have wondered what more he had to do to let the audience know he's in on the joke.  It was a move that should have provoked outrage, and then the realization that the action genre is so superficial that it simply doesn't matter who runs around screaming "Optimus!"  Alas, the film was successful enough that Bay's clever intentions seem to have been lost.

Accordingly, that has led Bay and Kruger to up the ante in this latest outing.  The theme of the Transformers being destructive to mankind has been taken from subtext to text.  Even the ostensible "good guys," the Autobots are not heroes.  They despise mankind and are currently hunted by them.  Optimus Prime's first speech in the film is a violent threat directed at all humans.  He's flabbergasted that humans would "betray" them after all they've done.

And what have the Autobots done except bring an interstellar war to the doorstep of a race that has no stakes in the battle?  What has mankind done except have the audacity to build cities where the "good" and "bad" robots alike do immense battle without any concern for collateral damage?  Optimus Prime is the herald for Armageddon and he and his disciples regard mankind as ungrateful because the Transformers haven't been greeted as liberators for a conflict for which they are completely responsible.  Sure, they always justify it as trying to stop a hidden weapon, or to vanquish a greater evil, but at the end of the day it remains their fight and their fight alone. 

And that's when it hits you - Transformers: Age of Extinction is all about the Iraq War.

It is as pointed and liberal a criticism of neoconservative policy as you will find in a modern action film.  Suddenly it no longer seems quite so inexplicable that this is the first Transformers film to not feature extensive cooperation from the U.S. military.

The subtext of the film is clear - Transformers are evil. Thus, Transformers movies are also evil and destructive to film.  The Earth depicted in this series of films is justified in wanting all Transformers, good and bad, vanquished forever.  The same goes for the soulless films that bring their exploits to the screen.  Michael Bay must have smiled as he concocted this plot with his screenwriter, certain that if making Optimus Prime the villain wouldn't at last destroy this franchise and set him free, taking on a hot button topic like the Iraq War would.

“I'm, like, a true American.”- Michael Bay, from a GQ interview.

Let's not mistake that criticism for anti-American sentiment, because Bay's other masterstroke is that the real hero of this film is a true patriot through and through.  Kelsey Grammer plays a CIA agent who's made a secret pact with one faction of Transformers.  With this, he gets their cooperation in hunting down all remaining Transformers - Autobot and Decepticon - and then mining them for spare parts to build machines that mankind will control themselves.  Grammer's character has more common sense than any human featured in these films yet.

It's here that Bay and Kruger again confront the audience with the superficial filmic conventions they are used to embracing.  In any other film, Grammer's character would be a sinister badguy, someone whose death we cheer.  Instead, time and again, he's the only character with any sense at all. He's mobilized a task force to hunt a dangerous insurgent (Optimus Prime) and was savvy enough to make this other race of Transformers realize the contract benefits both of them.  He's hunting Optimus Prime because he knows that the longer he's out there, the worse it will be for national security, heck, even global security.

The movie proves him right.  From the time Optimus is turned back on, all he does is cause carnage and destruction while he and his cohorts regroup to be better effective at causing mayhem and chaos.  Two entire cities are lain to waste needlessly, a point driven home at the end of the film.  One might try to justify all of the carnage as the work of the badguys coming after Optimus, but the movie's final shot makes it clear that Optimus could have flown off of the planet unaided at any time he wanted.  Everything terrible that happens in this film is on Optimus Prime's shoulders.

Doubters of this theory might retort, "But if he's the hero, how does one rationalize him seemingly selling out for a stake in Stanley Tucci's billionaire character's company?" Is it "selling out" to earn a living by utilizing your assets in return for compensation?  Grammer's character Attinger is a sly meta-commentary on the parade of classy actors (John Malkovich, Jon Voight, Frances McDormand and Tucci and Grammer themselves for that matter) often mocked and derided for appearing in films like this.  Attinger has devoted his life to his country. His passion is patriotism, but that unfortunately doesn't pay the bills.  It's no different for actors who are artistically fulfilled by the rich independent films that pay little.  No one in Hollywood would begrudge any of those fine performers the compensation of a paycheck role, and thus, Attinger's "paycheck role" should not be treated as an indictment against him.  We do not judge Grammer and Tucci for lending gravitas to this film for a fair price, nor do we condemn Attinger for his deal with Tucci's billionaire.

It's telling that when Grammer's character dies, it's not in a confrontation with a human protagonist, such as the one played by Mark Wahlberg.  His end comes from a cold-blooded shot from Optimus Prime that takes him out of commission.  Tucked amid the total destruction of Hong Kong, it could have been a tiny act of violence, but the human scale of the brutality here at last brings into focus what a monster Optimus Prime is, acting above the law and summarily executing a man whose only true crime was trying to protect his nation from a proven threat. 

Optimus Prime is a false god, unworthy of being cheered as a liberator, or worshiped via the ubiquitous toys found in every store. This is a film designed to make every patriotic American want to burn their Optimus Prime toys in solidarity, then buy more to burn them again.  For a while, it seemed that Bay was content just to destroy the genre of superficial blockbusters, but three movies clearly taught him that the merchandising will keep this series going forever.  How does one defeat that? By destroying the symbol that fuels the legend.

What Bay and Kruger do here, they do for the good of future generations of film.  Alan Moore in his prime could not have achieved such a pointed deconstruction of the toy-to-movie form of entertainment.

The treatment of women is different this time out too.  One of the most uncomfortably leering scenes in a PG-13 film was the "check under the hood" scene in the first Transformers where the camera oogled Megan Fox with such force it's a wonder her clothes didn't melt.  Her abs and cleavage were so prominently featured throughout the film that it was possible to draw them from memory.   Her entrance in the second film was perhaps even more sexist, and her Victoria's Secret replacement fared little better.

By comparison AOE's Nicola Peltz, is practically covered in a burka.  There are no bare middrifs, barely any cleavage, no bending-over shots and perhaps only a fleeting moment or two where Bay's camera admires her from behind.  Moreover, she's time and again pretty much the only character with any real common sense.  Her father, Cade, likes to think he's laying down the law, but for the all the overprotective vibes he puts out, it's pretty obvious if he was left without her, he'd starve within a week.  Cade makes such terrible decisions from his first moment on screen that the movie seems to be testing how far it can push it before you realize your sexist impulses and star worship have led you to embrace the wrong character as the "hero."

The story between Cade and his daughter can't help but evoke Armageddon.  The girl has been secretly dating an older guy against her father's "no boys" rule.  It starts off seeming like a replay of Bruce Willis's Harry Stamper and his rage at finding out one of his workers (Ben Affleck) is dating his daughter (Liv Tyler.)  By the end of the film, Harry sacrifices himself so that Affleck's character can live and look after his girl.

Towards the end of Age of Extinction, Bay gives us a moment designed to evoke that same passing of the baton, with Cade diving back into battle after telling his girl he loves her and telling her boyfriend to take care of her.  The boyfriend (the wussiest alpha male ever to wander into a Bay film) raises no objection.  But Peltz's character doesn't take this shit.  She immediately tells her boyfriend and Bumblebee that they're going back for Cade.  Much is made of this, for when Bumblebee returns to battle, Optimus Prime shouts "I gave you an order!"

Not only does Wahlberg's lunkhead Cade not have to sacrifice himself, but he's saved entirely by the only person who's given good advice the entire film, his daughter.  The connection couldn't be more clear.  Peltz is essentially Penny and Wahlberg is Inspector Gadget, the hapless fool who thinks he knows what he's doing while the person he's technically responsible for is the one who really knows the score.

Who knew Michael Bay was a feminist?  Or maybe he just likes Inspector Gadget. Either way, there's no other conclusion to draw than this film being an apology for Armageddon.  Michael, consider your contrition accepted.

To return to the film as a whole, the excess isn't cranked to 11 here, it's spun all the way up to 22.  Of course the movie verges on three hours - it's supposed to be a relentless assault on our senses.  The only way the comparison between this film and Alex DeLarge's reconditioning could be more pointed was if the Imagine Dragons soundtrack included Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."  Bay stuffs us full of pixels and pyrotechnics like a disciplinarian father forcing his son to smoke an entire carton of cigarettes after catching him smoking.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is anarchist filmmaking at its finest and the most subversive studio film released in decades.  Every moment necessary, each scene part of a rich tapestry that film scholars will be analyzing and debating for centuries. I give this film four thumbs up, because in true Bay-like excess, why only give two thumbs when you can give four?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Film School Rejects post: BATMAN & ROBIN isn't as bad as you remember it

It's become a rather common occurrence for film and pop culture sites to celebrate the anniversary of some film that carries a great deal of nostalgia for members of a particular generation.  Last month, Ain't It Cool News celebrated the 30th anniversary of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with a seemingly endless series of articles revisiting this "underrated" film.

Permit me a small digression. I think what turned me off from the Temple of Doom love-fest a bit was that every writer singing the praises of the film seemed to be coming from a place of defensiveness. It was as if they grew up in a world where Temple of Doom was as derided as Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was upon release.  The result were a lot of testimonials that seemed determined to defend the film from an attack it never really faced, and then exaggerating the virtues of the film to prove the "haters" wrong.

Honestly, there was a whiff of the disingenuous to this celebration.  Temple of Doom is a perfectly adequate film.  It's got some great action set pieces and a number of moments that stand with the best of the series.  It also has some really awful ethnic stereotyping, some wretched moments that are comedically tone-deaf, and love interest that's the Jar Jar Binks of the first three films.  There's plenty of stuff to love, but it's got plenty of flaws too.  Maybe the ridiculous dinner scene doesn't bother you.  Perhaps you are inclined to argue that Willie Scott is exactly what Lucas and Spielberg were going for by evoking a specific sort of 1930s archtype.  I don't necessarily agree that authorial intent trumps the effectiveness of those intentions.  Just because Lucas and Spielberg got exactly what they wanted at the time doesn't mean it wasn't a bad idea on its face.

(Don't get me wrong. Temple of Doom gets more right than it gets wrong, but it's not without demerits.  When I throw the movie in for fun, I usually watch the amazing opening sequence up until the raft drifts into the village.  Then I skip to just before the mine car chase.)

It was interesting to contrast some reactions to the Temple of Doom nostalgia to some muted appreciation for Ghostbusters II that arose a few weeks later.  While most people sharing and commenting on the Indy articles were clearly in the pro-movie camp, the Ghostbusters II reactions were more mixed, with a lot of assertions that the people who loved that film did so only because they saw it as kids before they knew any better.

There's a grain of truth to that.  There's plenty in the Ghostbusters sequel that amused me, but I won't pretend for a minute that it's as accomplished as its predecessor. It DOES bemuse me that some people hate it so much though, so passionately that I think they would be the ones most in need of revisiting the film with objective eyes.

Which brings me to a piece I wrote for Film School Rejects.  Rather than revisit a film that was generally considered pretty good and try to upgrade it to "flawless timeless classic," I resolved to examine a truly derided film, one who's name is so synonymous with "worst movie" lists that you can count on it ending up somewhere on the general "Worst Movies Ever" lists and almost always at the top of "Worst Comic Book/Superhero Movies Ever Made" articles.

That's right. I attempted an objective re-examination of Batman & Robin.

I hadn't watched the film in about a decade or so.  Before I revisited it, I had a few theories.  It occurred to me that since this movie no longer carried the burden of being the torchbearer for an entire franchise (or for that matter, the entire genre of superhero films) a lot of baggage became irrelevant.  It was similar to how as a major Superman fan, I rejected Smallville for many years until I learned to just accept it as an alternate universe type version of the characters I loved.

So my mission statement for this viewing - to find out if it was possible to accept Batman & Robin on its own terms and evaluate how well it executes its own ambitions. It clearly wasn't trying to be Tim Burton's Batman, nor was it trying to be in the same vein as Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.  Beating it up just because it doesn't conform to a Bat-fan's particular preferred incarnation of the character is unfair.

So if one accepts that Batman & Robin is actively trying to be a big-budget version of the 1960's campy TV show, is it possible to appreciate it the same way that most fans have now accepted Adam West's incarnation as a valid interpretation?

Check out my Film School Rejects post for the answer in "Bombs Away: Enjoying BATMAN & ROBIN On Its Own Campy Terms."

"How Silly Can You Get?" - Top Secret oral history contains the secrets to writing spoof movies

These days, the term "spoof movie" tends to conjure up images of churned out hackery from the likes of Friedberg/Seltzer, whose films play less like the Airplanes and Naked Guns of yore, and more like restaged sequences from recent films with a fart joke or a pop culture reference tossed in.  Product like many of the SCARY MOVIE films plays less like satire on the works it references and more like a series of "Hey, remember this moment from a 9 month-old pop culture phenomenon?" The story is threadbare and many scenes are little more than gag after gag.

The godfathers of this genre are David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, whose career-making film Airplane literally invented the spoof movie genre.  Only Mel Brooks could have a claim to getting there first, but there's a wackiness and joke density that permeates Airplane which films like even Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein don't match.

The ZAZ team made it look so easy with Airplane that when working on the film's follow-up, Top Secret! even they didn't seem to understand what really made the film work.  (I personally love the film, though.)  Its something they cop to again and again in this oral history of Top Secret!

I'm reprinting a number of their quotes here because it goes to the heart of what a good movie needs - a strong story and structure.  Everything else is gravy.

Jerry Zucker: We were funny guys who really didn’t understand, had no clue, about movie structure.

Jim Abrahams: ‘Airplane!’ was based on this movie ‘Zero Hour!,’ and that’s a story about a guy with post-traumatic stress disorder and, if you look at it in ‘Airplane!’ pretty carefully, that’s what Bob Hayes’ character had. He was plagued by demons from the war and it affected his personality.


Jerry Zucker: That’s part of the problem of doing a second movie after a big hit, everybody says, “Well, you must know.” And the fact is, we didn’t. We knew how to tell jokes, but we didn’t understand yet how to make a movie. I don’t know why nobody said, “Hey, take a structure course.”

David Zucker: We thought we hit it out of the park, because it was so funny. We knew we had the jokes. But I think we learned a lesson.

Jerry Zucker: I think some of our best jokes are in ‘Top Secret!,’ but it’s really hurt by not having a story. It doesn’t have much of a story or a hook … joke-wise, we started to run out of gas at the end of ‘Airplane!.’ But the movie doesn’t run out of gas.

Another lesson they touch on is the issue of topical jokes and references:

Jim Abrahams: Especially after ‘Airplane!,’ we started to figure out the rules of comedy beyond just our own instincts of “does that seem funny or not.” And one of the rules that we came up with was if we’re going to parody a specific scene from a movie, that it needs to work on its own. And if you get the fact it’s a parody of a specific movie, well that’s kind of frosting on the cake. 

 David Zucker: When I reflect on it, it’s better that we didn’t do topical humor. And the unique thing about movies like ‘Airplane!’ and ‘Top Secret!’ is that they are still funny. So, when I see them with audiences, they still laugh. 

 Jim Abrahams: There’s a scene on a beach in ‘Airplane!’ where Bob and Julie got wiped out by a wave. In reviews for ‘Airplane!,’ people said, “Wow, wasn’t that a clever spoof of the scene from ‘Here to Eternity.’ Well, we had never seen ‘From Here to Eternity.’ We had no idea that it was a spoof, we just thought it would be funny for a couple to get wiped out by a wave while they’re kissing on the beach. But that got us thinking that if you’re doing a spoof from a scene from a movie, it has to work regardless or not whether or not you get the reference.

 Comedy is about more than just silly gags.  Most comedy writers will tell you that the rules for writing a comedy are the same as writing any other film.  Build off of a strong structure, have a story that makes sense, and have characters who are consistently drawn.  Do all of that and the humor will arise naturally.

You can find the oral history of Top Secret! here.

Monday, June 23, 2014

I audited James Franco's Screenwriting class.

A couple weeks ago, I received a press release touting an online screenwriting class that actor/writer/director/producer James Franco had launched on Skillshare.  I get a lot of press releases and requests like this, and to be honest, I rarely republish them because I'm leery of publicizing a service or product I don't really understand.  I told Franco's people as much, and they offered me free access to his class.  I'm always impressed when people put their money where their mouth is and I figured I couldn't turn down the opportunity to evaluate Franco's lessons.

I like Franco.  He gets teased often for having his hand in a lot of different projects, but the longer I'm in Hollywood, the more I appreciate someone with a work ethic like that. This also isn't his first foray into teaching, as he's taught in the film and english departments at USC, UCLA, CalArts and NYU.

The class is a series of 15 video lessons (more like lectures, really) that total about 90 minutes of running time.  The videos are split between Franco and his Rabbit Bandini Productions co-founder Vince Jolivette as they tackle different aspects of the course.  Franco's segments are more weighted towards the storytelling end of the instruction.

An Online Skillshare Class by James Franco

Some of this is useful, as in the first segment when Franco discusses how a script is a tool to "make it clear to all the people working there, what you have in your mind, but in a way that allows these other departments to do their jobs."   He pushes the idea of simplified focus - one main character, one main storyline, etc, instead of many storylines.  This is a good basic introduction to crafting in narrative as well as the opportunities that short films allow, such as more experimental work and unlikable characters.

Here's the thing - most of you probably read that and thought, "That's spot-on, but I already know this already!" It's probably not an off-base assumption to guess that anyone who's already made a short film or has taken at least one or two film classes will have that reaction.  This is a video series targeted largely at people who have had little or no film education or practical experience. That is the audience that will get the most out of this.

If this was a series available for free on YouTube, I'd probably have already written a post touting all the solid advice contained within and linked to it.  I don't really take any exception to the ideas that Franco and Jolivette express here, but I also don't know if I can honestly advise you to spend $25 for it.  This is very basic 101-level stuff, and I feel like most of my readers have either already grown beyond it or can get much of the same advice for free elsewhere.

So that means the price tag comes down to the value of entering in the competition.  The videos lay out the class assignment - write a short screenplay based on a short story of one of three works. As their release notes, "In every Skillshare class, students create a project to learn by doing. Franco and Jolivette are challenging their students to write and share an 8-minute short screenplay adapted from one of three selected works: The Spoon River Anthology; Winesburg, Ohio; or Pastures of Heaven. Franco and Jolivette will read the 10 student screenplays with the most likes and offer one-on-one feedback to their favorite. The deadline to submit screenplays for consideration is July 24."

This is where I have my biggest disagreement.  I don't necessarily like the idea of adapting another story as a learning experience for writing a story.  Franco makes a decent case of why he chose this method, as it forces the writers to think how to translate the narrative from one medium to the other.  I think it's more important to learn how to find your own voice with your own material.  But that's mostly my thing. Franco defends his opinion pretty well.

Jolivette's videos in the course cover a lot of the more practical matters such as budgeting, working with the crew, pitching, writing loglines and treatments.  Again, it's all useful information, if a bit basic for anyone who's already made a short film.

The series would be a wonderful companion with my own 12-Step Screenwriting videos.  At $25, the price is a little steep for the information contained therein.  I suppose one could look at the $25 as an entry fee in a short film script contest, though it's somewhat vague what the benefits are of Franco and Jolivette reading your script and deciding they like it.

If it was $25 to enter a short film contest, that might be more understandable. Then I might at least feel like you'd come out of this with a calling card that could do you some good in the industry.  Or if the prize involved Franco deciding to direct and or act in at least one of the short films, that too might add enough value to the class that I'd consider it worthwhile.

Hell, throw everything else I said out.  If the videos (or even half of the videos) were free and public, and then you could make your own choices about if you wanted to pay to see the rest and enter the class, I'd probably still say, "Hey, check this out. Some of you might get something from this."

As it stands right now, I'm sure many of you feel you have better ways to spend $25.  Hopefully I've given enough information so you can make a judgement about if this class is something you'd find valuable.  Those of you who are interested in checking out Franco's class can find it here.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

HUMAN TARGET producer crowdfunds for his INDIANA JONES fanfilm

I have a pretty strict policy about Kickstarter endorsement - I don't promote it unless I contribute to it.  Because of this, I'm pretty skeptical when I get an email drawing my attention to a particular campaign, but every now and then there are elements attached to the project that draw my interest.

TV writer/producer Stephen Scaia is running a campaign to raise money for his Indiana Jones fan-film.  Stephen's credits include the shows JERICHO, WAREHOUSE 13, the unproduced live-action STAR WARS series and - most notably - HUMAN TARGET.  I really enjoyed HUMAN TARGET, particularly the first season, and one of the big things I loved was that it seemed to do an action movie for TV every week.  So an Indiana Jones-style action sequence as conceived by that guy definitely has my interest piqued.

The cast includes Simone Bailey (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, THE L WORD) and Timothy Omundson (PSYCH, JERICO, DEADWOOD.)

Check out the pitch video for the project. 

You can find the entire page for the campaign here, along with all the rewards.  They're very close to their goal, so close that perhaps they've crosssed it by the time you see this.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

EDGE OF TOMORROW is the kind of sharp action film we need more of

I've been seeing promos for EDGE OF TOMORROW for about six months now, and it's rather embarrassing that it took a couple comments during Tom Cruise's interview with The Daily Show last week before I woke up to a major aspect of its premise.  The film stars Cruise as a solider named Cage who is part of a battalion of ground troops taking on an alien force in Europe.  When he dies in battle, he suddenly wakes up a day earlier, quickly realizing he's now part of a time loop that resets the day each time he dies.  This gives him the chance to learn from his mistakes and try to last longer on the battlefield, hopefully eventually scoring a victory.

It's a perfect metaphor for the nature of a video game character/player.  It is perhaps the most literal translation of what it's like to play something like SUPER MARIO BROS, where Mario gets sent to a new land, and - thanks to extra lives - gets a restart from the beginning every time he dies.  If EDGE OF TOMORROW didn't exist, it's whole hook would be a clever enough conceit to actually take another run at re-adapting MARIO BROS for the big screen.

I haven't read any reviews yet, but early chatter seems to use GROUNDHOG DAY as shorthand when describing the concept.  EOT uses the time loop in an entirely different way than that earlier film, though.  In GROUNDHOG DAY, Phil Conners is trying to find a way out of the loop. He needs the repeating day to stop.  In EOT, the loop is a tool that the protagonists use to gain information and experience that will let them achieve a deciding victory in this war with the alien occupiers.

When we first meet Cage, he's a Major in the military's PR department.  He had a hand in creating a propaganda star out of Emily Blunt's Rita Vratski, who won a major battle on her first day in the field and became the poster girl for their new recruitment drive.  Cage is a pretty boy, a glad-hander with zero combat experience and no desire to get anywhere near a battlefield.  Most amusingly, Cruise seems to be playing him as an amplification of his own public persona rather than his action movie persona.

I don't want to get too much into the mechanics of how Cruise is able to reset, or too heavily into the specifics of what his mission becomes.  What is important is that after a few runs through the loop, he tracks down Rita, who's familiar with what's happening to him because she too used to be a repeater.  She trains him and through her we not only learn the rules, but figure out the road map to defeating the aliens.

One thing a lot of writers could learn from the script is economy of action. Cruise's first time through the repeating day is shown in fairly heavy detail.  During the second time, we see less.  There's a nice cut from Cruise telling his commanding officer, "Just give me 30 seconds and I can explain all of this" to him being dragged off kicking and screaming.  We don't need to see Cruise recap the previous fifteen minutes in a failed attempt to convince the commander he knows the future.  We just need to see the result - that he's disbelieved.

The timing of the cut also provokes a laugh and gets some comic relief in.  There are a few more moments of these that happen throughout.  Once or twice we see a scene end abruptly and then start over just seconds earlier, indicating that Cruise met an untimely (and sometimes darkly comic) death and we're catching up to him after he's already relived through the necessary preamble.  (I dare not spoil the best one of these but it involves Cruise trying to slip away from his platoon unnoticed.)

The film is peppered with moments like that.  We come into the second or third version of a scene much later than we did on the first go-round.  At times, we're only shown a series of events on the final time Cruise completes the event.  There's a moment late in the film where he's trying to convince a general that the ground mission will fail and that the only chance is for the general to release some contraband he has in a safe.

It's easy to overlook how challenging this performance must have been for Cruise.  Obviously a film a shot out of sequence, so actors are used to having to track their performances without the benefit of playing the film in any sort of emotional continuity. There's an extra degree of difficulty when an actor has to perform multiple versions of the same scene - often with near-identical dialogue - but bring a different emotional nuance to each version.  The cocky version of Cage whom we meet in the start slowly disappears over the course of the film.  "Press Junket" Cruise matures into "Ethan Hunt" Cruise.

The first scene in the loop is usually Cruise's confrontation with a commanding officer played by Bill Paxton.  We see that a variety of ways and each instance leads into a number of other scenes that follow that particular stage of Cage's development.  Cruise has to make sure all these jigsaw pieces fit perfectly, even though he might spend a week shooting 12 iterations of that scene, he has to make sure the version that fits with his 4th version of the loop is distinct from the others AND matches the later scenes from that version of the loop.

Of course, when he shoots the next scene in that sequence, it will be on a completely different day and also likely as one of many multiple incarnations of that scene.  And it's not as if he's playing one extreme to the other.  This is a gradual arc, a little like stepping up the musical scale one key at a time.  An actor gets little credit when they pull this off because the perfect continuity is invisible, but it's the sort of performance that you can only get from a dedicated professional.  That's just one reason why only a fool would dismiss this as a big dumb shoot 'em up.

It's soon apparent from the way that Cruise is anticipating every minor event unfolding during this meeting (sort of like Bill Murray masterminding his heist in GROUNDHOG DAY, or telling Rita about everything that will happen seconds from now in the diner) that he's lived through this many times before.  We don't need to see five failed attempts to win the general over - all that maters is this last desperate time where Cruise DOES say the right thing to get what he needs.  This is also the sort of scene that works better late in the film when the audience is so used to the rules the movie is playing by that it's easy to process what's going on.  There's a certain point where the movie stops explaining every last little thing and trusts that you're smart enough to keep up.

The break into the third act is another moment that underlines how perfect the structure of this film is.  Without betraying too much, all I'll say is that there's a clear "oh shit" moment where we realize that all bets are off.  One of the problems of telling a time travel story is that if the characters can always go back in time, the stakes are diminished.  This safety net is obliterated by a development that establishes a tight ticking clock on the end.  Just when we've finally gotten used to the idea of "Oh, he can just die and start over. No big," the film pulls the rug out from under us.

The only aspect of the script that doesn't totally track for me is the final ending.  And since I've been careful about not blowing other plot points, this is your final warning that what follows after this is nothing but SPOILERS



We cool?  Okay, so the team succeeds in destroying the Omega, and just before Cruise dies in the processes, he absorbs the Omega's blood, which is what sent him back in time in the first place.  He wakes up in the past, but somehow several hours sooner than he usually did.  What's more, despite time rewinding, the Omega is apparently somehow still dead even though those events haven't happened yet.

That seems a little weird to me. Cruise leaping back a little further I guess I could just chalk up to him absorbing a lot more blood before he died.  (I considered that it's just that he died a few hours sooner than scheduled, but the fact is even when he lasted well past his original time of death, he always bounced back to the exact same point in time.)  The Omega remaining dead I guess is just supposed to be one of those weird time-travel things, where I suppose if it's killed at one point in the loop it reverberates backwards.

It seems to be a deliberate paradox, but I'm a little thrown by the fact the film doesn't try to explain it.  There's not even a scene of Cruise or his science buddy making a theoretical guess as to what it all means.  It doesn't ruin the film or anything, but I do wish the ending were more airtight.

Still, I highly recommend EDGE OF TOMORROW as the sort of action film we need more of.  The characters take center stage and the movie is intelligent about every one of its developments.

Monday, June 9, 2014

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS - not a film about cancer, a film about character

When I was working as a reader, there was a particular breed of script that I came to dread almost as much as my much-loathed torture porn: the "terminal illness grief porn script."  In terms of specs I hated, torture porn was more offensive, but this sort of overwrought melodrama was far more common.  I saw so many scripts about people dealing with cancer, people dealing with their kid's cancer, people dealing with their cancer and their kid's cancer while their own father wastes away with Alzheimer's... you get the picture.

Writers sometimes want to deal with weighty matters.  They think that's the ticket to an Oscar script - a story about terminal disease with the main objective in bumming the audience out in the misguided belief that making an audience sob is both easy and a benchmark of quality.  I'm pretty sure that at some point in this blog, I've given the advice "Do NOT writer your terminal illness/AIDS/Cancer spec!"

Writing a script about cancer is a hack writer mistake. It usually just leads to awful stories that swim in false sentimentality.  THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, however, is not a film about cancer. It's a film about people, people who happen to have cancer.  Adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber from the novel by John Green, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is a movie that everyone looking to write well-rounded characters should study.  There's not a moment of the script that doesn't feel genuinely character-driven.  It's a virtue shared by Neustadter & Weber's last effort THE SPECTACULAR NOW, which I previously raved about and put on my Top Ten List of last year's films.

I've not read the novel by John Green, so I have no idea what elements of the screenplay are totally unique and which ones are literal translations of the novel.  The fact remains that adapting a great book is more than just retyping the dialogue.  The two mediums accomplish character development in very different ways.  So even if this translation is extremely faithful to the spirit of Green's novel, that doesn't diminish what Neustadter & Weber have accomplished here.

Our protagonist is a teenage girl named Hazel, played wonderfully by Shailene Woodley.  She's been dealing with cancer for several years now and as it has spread to her lungs, she requires a portable oxygen tank in order to breathe.  It also means that her condition is terminal.  When we are introduced to her, she's dealing with this the way I imagine most of us would, being bluntly and slightly annoyed with how everyone around her deals with her cancer in touchy-feeley ways.  She's forced to attend a self-help group, but seems to find the whole exercise a waste of time.  There's even an undercurrent that suggests she feels this pageantry only feeds false hope and platitudes.

It is at one of these meetings she encounters an 18 year-old cancer survivor named Augustus Waters.  Cancer took his right leg below the knee, but he's in remission right now and is mostly there to support his friend, who is about to lose his second eye to some sort of disease.  Augustus is the sort of sweet, non-threatening and impossibly charming teenage boy who only exists in Young Adult novels.

If there's a male equivalent to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, Augustus would probably qualify. He knows how to flirt with Hazel just enough to make her laugh and blush, but not make her uncomfortable in a bad way.  Much like THE SPECTACULAR NOW, the movie really captures that pure feeling of first teenage-love.  There's cute banter, followed by hanging out, the trading of beloved books, late night texting and developing inside jokes.  The film revels in the sort of innocence that we seem to have lost in teen romance for some time now.

There was a point that it dawned on me that these two had been hanging out for over a half-hour of screentime and the movie hadn't gone anywhere near the issue of sex.  There were no raging hormones, no overt sexual insecurities or angst about losing one's virginity.  It feels like a lot of teen movies today can't help but kick off their relationships on one of those notes. (And there's nothing wrong with that when it's done well, mind you.)  It was a real breath of fresh air that their meet-cute didn't involve some sort of awkward hook-up at the start.  The movie really knows how to set them up as "friends" while moving them towards that ambiguous "are we friends or are we more?" stage.

And yes, their mutual virginity eventually does become an issue the film raises, but even then it feels understated.  Their individual sexual insecurities feel real and the movie presents them well while laying the groundwork for later progression.  When the two finally consummate their relationship, it feels earned.  Too often, sex scenes in films are there just to titillate, but Woodley and her co-star Ansel Elgort turn it into a moving moment of connection between the two.

(It's also interesting to contrast the film's mature handling of teen sexuality with the utter ineptitude of an earlier project Woodley appeared in, the ABC Family series THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER.  Though that show barely went 30 seconds without mentioning the word "sex" and every single plotline on the show was tied to the sex lives of the teens, it played as though it was written by aliens whose only exposure to human behavior were magazine articles about the teen hook-up culture.  It's remarkable that was the first thing I saw Shailene Woodley act in, giving performances that carried no hint of her true talent. It's kind of like if "Octopus's Garden" was your first exposure to the Beatles.)

So much of the film builds to that moment without a plot overtly ferrying us there. Aside from an impending trip to Amsterdam, there's no overt goal that the characters are working toward. The story momentum is entirely built on the growing connection between these two characters.  That's an incredibly hard needle to thread without the script seeming directionless.  Yet, when you want the film, that deceptively appears to be accomplished with no effort at all.

And then the movie breaks our heart.

Augustus reveals that his cancer has returned in an aggressive way. We've spent so much of the film steeling ourselves for Hazel's condition to get worse that this is a gut punch we don't see coming. One of the harder things to see is how this robs Augustus of his breezy spirit.  Hazel clearly has kept a lot of her insecurities about death inside for a while, but in a weird way, she seemed to have accepted it.  She might not be at peace with the idea, but she's not kidding herself that this is going to end any way but her death.

Augustus, on the other hand, had faced that moment and thought he beat it.  It took his leg, but he clearly expected that the be the price he had to pay.  You get the sense that death had become an abstraction for him in a way that it no longer was for Hazel.  When he crashes, he crashes hard.  A voiceover from Hazel says that she wishes she could say that his condition didn't rob him of his smile or his sense of humor, but that that would be a lie.  Her delivery of that line says more than three scenes of Augustus lashing out in self-pity could.

Seeing him broken like this hurts us too. He's the guy who made us smile in the first act, the guy we wanted to see get Hazel out of her shell.  There's a profound unfairness to the fact that all of that means nothing - the cancer's going to get him too.

I like that the movie doesn't give us a death scene.  We're not there at his final moments.   In fact, once the film establishes his decline, we seem to spend more time on his "good days" than his bad ones.  I think that's what makes it such a gut punch when Hazel's voiceover reveals he's gone. There's no catharsis granted by seeing him slip away while totally at peace. We don't get to say goodbye. He's there, and then he's gone.  All that's left is to watch Hazel devastated by her own grief.

This isn't cheap grief-porn.  Audiences don't leave THE FAULT IN OUR STARS with red, swollen eyes because of some hack manipulation.  We cry because for two hours, Augustus Waters and Hazel were our friends. They were real. And then something bad happened to them.  First we had to deal with how it changed them, and then we had to deal with how it took them.

This is a story about love and about appreciating life. It's a story about growing up and dealing with all that entails.  But most of all, it's a story about Hazel and Augustus.

And it's most definitely not "a story about cancer." It's so much more than that.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

See Joshua Caldwell's $6,000 feature film LAYOVER!

Those of you in Los Angeles tonight should try to catch the LA premiere of friend-of-the-blog Joshua Caldwell's film LAYOVER.  The film is screening in competition as part of Dances With Films, following a successful premiere last week at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Caldwell shot the entire feature for a budget of $6,000, making use of a borrowed camera and stolen shots.  He also wrote a fantastic post about the whole experience on the site No Film School. It's something everyone dreaming of making an indie film should read. An excerpt:

Write Set Pieces that Can Be Accomplished on a Budget

If you know how to pull it off for no money, you can allow for a few scenes that look expensive but were actually the cheapest scenes we shot. There’s a trick, however, to making some of those set pieces scenes work: don’t write any dialogue or require any performance from your actors.

The reason for this is while you might have a really expensive looking scene, you may not be allowed more than one take. These are scenes you shoot guerilla style. Here’s an example:

There’s a scene in the film where our main character Simone meets up with a friend and they go to a club in Hollywood. The club is packed, it’s busy, it’s fun, colorful and dark and our editor, Will Torbett edited the hell out of it. Feels like we owned that club.

But we didn’t. We got permission to be there with our camera and film but nothing else. We couldn’t control the lights; we couldn’t control the crowds or anything else. But I knew that would be the case (because we didn’t have the money to shut the place down) so I wrote a scene that didn’t require any dialogue (dialogue requires multiple takes) and only had specific piece of action to be filmed (Simone seeing her friend). The rest was just girls dancing and having fun.

BUT that was also the point of the scene. For Simone, this is the point in the movie where she starts to let go and have fun. So it became the perfect character-based set piece and it really increases the production value of the film.

SlashFilm also conducted a video interview with Josh that you can find below:

The film screens tonight at 9:30pm at the TCL Chinese Theatres.  Tickets are available here

Over on his own site, Josh talks about his Indiegogo campaign to raise money to film the remaining two films in what he sees as "The LAX Trilogy."

Monday, June 2, 2014

"How are submissions to agents for their clients handled?"

 Blaine asks:

I have a question on script length when it’s NOT for a spec submission.

I totally understand why 120 pages is the barometer for submission of spec scripts.
Totally understand time is money.
I can write most of my screenplays to 120 comfortably.

However, in this particular case…. I have written and am now producing  a feature which I am directing.  (Based on a best-selling novel)

The script is 165 pages.
It’s a drama in the vein of THE ENGLISH PATIENT, OUT OF AFRICA….

I am confident of bringing the film at 160 minutes.
OUT OF AFRICA and THE ENGLISH PATIENT both run at  161 and 162 respectively.

Its fiction based on true events and the first time that this story has ever been told on screen.
A love story set against the backdrop of a civil war. This war was and is very close to the hearts of many. Many lives lost, many have been effected and continue to be so.

The script has a good pace (I feel);  the pace is quicker than the two I referred to.

The current situ is we are well on the way to putting the funding plan together , sales estimates etc… so WE are comfortable with the length and funding BUT

In the next few weeks the Script will be going out to Agents in LA as part of the packing campaign.

THE QUESTION:  I wondered if you had any insight or thoughts into how the Agents (of their readers) handle the script length issue? Given they are reading it from the perspective of its appeal to the Talent they represent?

My experience is that when you submit to an agency, your script will be read by the same readers who receive all the general submissions.  Really, when you submit anywhere, unless you have an extremely strong personal connection with the executive you're submitting to, expect that the script will be read by the usual "first filters."

Though the coverage will likely address the viability of the script as a project for that actor specifically, it's also likely to give a broad overview of the entire script's virtues and sins.  The reasons for this are probably obvious - even if there's a great role for an actor in the project, if the rest of the script is a dog, that agent is probably not going to want their client committed to it.

Another reason for the coverage to focus on the entire script in general is that this particular coverage will go into the company-wide database.  At some point, should the script be submitted for any other reason in the future, that old coverage will be called up.  Agency coverage lives FOREVER.  If you resubmit the exact same draft, the script will probably not be re-covered.  If you submit a revised draft, it's possible the script will be sent back to the original reader (if available) so that they can do comparison coverage and note if anything has changed from the previous draft.

You might try to get around this by changing the title of the script, but I can assure you that the people working in most story departments are sharp enough to pull up previous submissions by the same writer and give them a quick check to see if the characters and setting are similar to any of those earlier drafts.  More than once I got a script that the story department correctly flagged as a resubmission when the writer was attempting to make it look like a new script. 

There was also one time where the writer successfully fooled duped the people screening the scripts only to have the bad luck for the original reader (me) to grab the new version by sheer luck of the draw.  Within about three pages I recognized the script, which not only had been retitled, but also had several of the character names changed.  Also, the writer used a different permutation of their own name.  The best part? The rest of the script was about 95% the same.  (And pretty bad, so I didn't feel too sorry for him that his little stunt didn't work.)

So with all that in mind, the script length issue becomes somewhat irrelevant. They either like it or they don't.  The length itself won't be a problem as long as every page is compelling.  That said, always make sure that when you're submitting a long script (or any script, really) that there's not an ounce of fat in it.  If it's really good, the worst that'll probably happen is that the reader will note that perhaps future drafts could find a way to bring the length down.